Is R/B Aggro the best deck in Standard? Probably not, but it does make a strong case for itself. Winning Grand Prix Birmingham is well and good, but you can win a tournament without playing the best deck. It happens all the time. But placing six copies into the top 8 of a Grand Prix and nine more copies into the top 32? That's something special.
Still, Standard can be a very cyclical format and it remains to be seen whether R/B Aggro can maintain this level of dominance going forward. Dominaria Standard may have only been around for three weeks, but each of those weeks has seen a new 'best' deck emerge from the woodwork. If this trend continues, I'd say we're in for a pretty great Standard format.
But let's set aside the question of the best deck for the time being and talk instead about the best card in this Standard format. I have a nomination:
Look, I'll admit it, I'm pretty biased here. In the almost a year and a half since the release of Aether Revolt and the printing of Walking Ballista, I've registered Ballista in Standard tournaments far more often than not. I took a couple of short breaks from the path of the Ballista, once to play B/W Zombies and once to play U/W Oketra's Monument. And honestly, in retrospect I'm not even entirely sure it was correct to play zero copies of Ballista in the Monument deck.
Point is, I've played a lot of Walking Ballista. There's been times in the past when I thought Ballista was only okay, and there's been times when I thought it was great. Right now, I think it's the best its ever been, just truly phenomenal. Case in point: it's everywhere.
The number of different archetypes playing Walking Ballista right now is truly staggering. Not only is it seeing play in last weekend's breakout deck, R/B Aggro, it's being played by the breakout deck of the weekend before, W/B Aggro. It's true that the breakout deck of the first week, U/W Control, refuses to sully itself with any copies of Walking Ballista, but two of its U/W cousins, both Midrange and Historic, aren't afraid to besmirch their good name by associating with some Ballistas.
And that's only the tip of the iceberg. G/B Constrictor is still alive and well and never considers going out for the day without the full four copies of Walking Ballista. Every God-Pharaoh's Gift deck looking to make use of Gate to the Afterlife wants Ballista. For the most part, unless you're playing Search for Azcanta, Hazoret the Fervent, or Steel Leaf Champion, you're probably playing Walking Ballista.
And sometimes even then!
There's lots of good reasons why Walking Ballista enjoys this level of ubiquity in the format. If you're interested in them, check out the tail end of Todd Anderson's article from last week, right under the picture of our good friend Walking Ballista. Why you should put Walking Ballista in your deck is a fascinating question...but not one I'm particularly interested in at this moment.
No, what I want to focus on is what to do with the Walking Ballistas I draw during the game. Ballista is the most flexible Standard card I've had the pleasure of playing with in a long time. Ballista can basically do anything you want it to, but like all highly flexible cards that aren't immediately banned, it can't do everything you want it to. Time after time, you're going to have to decide what the right role is for your Ballista to play this game, and every time you decide wrong you're probably going to lose the game. That's a lot of pressure on a decision with so many options but don't fret, what follows is my fifteen months in the making guide to everything you can do with a Walking Ballista and when to do it.
Let's start with the most common use case of Walking Ballista: killing creatures. Actually, let's zoom in a little further than that and start with the most common type of creatures to kill: X/1s.
Toolcraft Exemplar and Veteran Motorist may not be as popular now as they once were, but they were the cards that originally convinced me of the power of Walking Ballista. I vividly recall playing against a Mardu Vehicles opponent a year ago who played a turn 2 Veteran Motorist against me. I remember looking down at my hand, seeing my Walking Ballista, and my whole game plan just instantly clicking into place.
The key thing to realize about using Walking Ballista against these small creatures is that you don't want to trade your Walking Ballista straight-up for their small aggressive creature. Sometimes times are tough and you have to, but for the most part Walking Ballista is far better than that. After all, if they play one copy of Toolcraft Exemplar in their deck, it's very likely they play four, and a lot of other X/1s to boot. You can do better than trading your Walking Ballista for a single creature.
When my opponent leads on an aggressive X/1, I'm looking for ways to be able to cast my Ballista for X=2, eat their X/1, and still have a Walking Ballista on the battlefield. Because their deck is very likely to contain many more X/1s, it's probable that what's left of my Ballista will eventually trade for another of their creatures or force them to use a removal spell, even if I never spend any more mana on it.
Generally, this means looking for ways to get to turn 4 without taking too much damage from their aggression. Presenting blockers that they must use removal spells on instead of developing their battlefield is one way to do this, another is holding up removal for any threat they play with more than one point of toughness. You'll feel very good the first time you Fatal Push an attacking Heart of Kiran on their turn 3, then untap and play a X=2 Walking Ballista that gets to mow down a Toolcraft Exemplar and stick around.
These two are also prime Ballista targets, but ones that are substantially harder to slow roll your Ballista against for value. Against Glint-Sleeve Siphoner I will generally snap off the X=1 Ballista as soon as they are threatening to draw a card if they untap. Them getting a free card negates the value I hope to receive down the road from keeping my Ballista around, and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner decks aren't known for their plethora of X/1s.
Bomat Courier is a different story. In general, I try very hard to not just trade Walking Ballista for Bomat Courier, but the risk in waiting isn't that the Bomat Courier might deal you too much damage, it's that it might build up too many cards. If they get to empty their hand and crack their turn 1 Bomat Courier before you kill it with a Walking Ballista, you've messed up and probably lost the game.
You need to watch for the point where cracking their Courier will be beneficial to them and pull the trigger on your Ballista the turn before that point is reached whether you've gotten to four mana or not. Typically, if you are on the play and they keep seven cards, you'll be fine to wait until turn 4. On the draw or when they mulligan, things get harder and you need to pay careful attention.
No, Walking Ballista can't kill Hazoret the Fervent, but squeaking all the value you can out of your Ballistas can play an important role in beating Hazoret without ever removing it. Look, if a Red Aggro deck is attacking you with a Hazoret and you don't have a Vraska's Contempt or a Cast Out or some other similar card, you're in a lot of trouble. Your only hope is to race and odds are high that the only way that will work is if you manage to chump block Hazoret a few times. Enter Walking Ballista.
Let's say you declined to use your Ballista for X=1, instead opting to take three damage from the Bomat Courier they played turn 1. Ouch. But then on turn 4 you play a Walking Ballista for two, kill the Bomat Courier, and pass. They slam Hazoret and alpha you, and you get to block Hazoret and then kill a Earthshaker Khenra before damage. Not only did you get to kill two creatures instead of one, you essentially gained four life on the exchange. Whenever possible, hold your Walking Ballista to do more than kill a single creature.
The big interaction with Rekindling Phoenix is that Walking Ballista is very good at killing the Elemental token generated by the Phoenix's death, thus killing the Phoenix for good. This means a Walking Ballista with four counters can permanently end a Phoenix, but that's not a very typical play pattern. If you ever do go for that play, keep in mind that a removal spell on your Ballista with the Elemental creation trigger on the stack will save their Phoenix.
No, the ideal play pattern when playing Walking Ballista against Rekindling Phoenix is to offer your opponent trades or opportunities to chump block with their Phoenix, and after they take it, slam the Ballista in your second main phase to eliminate the Elemental token. Indeed, the power level of this sequence is high enough that you can often just chump attack into a Phoenix while playing a Ballista deck and they will be forced to just let it through, scared of that main phase two Ballista from you.
No comprehensive guide to Walking Ballista would be complete without discussing how Ballista battles play out. The key thing to keep in mind is that your Ballista needs to be two counters bigger than an opposing Ballista for it to come out of the battle alive. Always announce and resolve your pings one at a time, as getting the damage marked on the opposing Ballista is pivotally important since each point of damage prevents them from using a counter.
One last note on sequencing before moving away from killing creatures: don't play Walking Ballista onto an empty battlefield in the early or midgame. If there's one lesson to be learned from all I've said in this section, it's that it is trivially easy for Walking Ballista to do better than trade for a single card and you should not give your opponent opportunities to let that be all it does.
If you play a X=2 Ballista while your opponent controls a two-toughness creature, if your opponent decides to use a removal spell on your Ballista you get to kill their creature. If no such creature exists, all you get to do is deal two damage to their face, which is not the extra value you were looking for.
Synthesizing all of this together, it becomes clear that playing Walking Ballista on turn 2 should be rare. In general, you only want to do so if you are trying to set up something, whether it be a Rishkar, Peema Renegade for your turn 3 or a trigger on the Toolcraft Exemplar you cast on turn 1. Sometimes if your hand is looking very mana-starved and you have no other option for turn two you'll cast it, but most of the time, I would rather not use my mana at all that turn than deploy Ballista for no reason.
Big Machine on Campus
Let's move on to the fun stuff: attacking your opponent with a 5/5 or bigger Walking Ballista. Well, fun in the Timmy kind of way. I personally tend to have more fun eating three of my opponent's creatures at once with my Walking Ballista, but there's certainly a pure kind of joy in watching your reasonable removal spell become the biggest creature on the battlefield.
I win a lot of games with Walking Ballista attacks, and I feel like my opponents are often a little surprised. The math's a little tricky to get your head around, but a piece of cake once you get it. When unblocked, Walking Ballista can essentially be worth twice it's power in damage. You hit them, then you remove all the counters and hit them again.
This means that if you're late in a game and cast a 4/4 Ballista off the eight lands you have on the battlefield, that Ballista is worth twelve damage next turn if gets to attack unhindered. Why twelve? Don't forget that you can spin Ballista twice with those same eight lands, making it a 6/6 before damage and then removing all the counters to six them again.
Side note: using Winged Temple of Orazca on a Walking Ballista essentially makes its hit worth three times its power instead of double. Don't make the mistake of thinking it'll end up as four times. Having a Walking Ballista on the battlefield means casting a Verdurous Gearhulk can be worth up to eight points of haste damage instead of just four, ten if there's a Winding Constrictor in play as well.
Now for more complicated combats. When pushing for lethal, Walking Ballista is always worth at least the number of counters on it, even if blocked. You must be sure to remove the counters before damage, as you won't be able to use some after damage is assigned. These combats can be complicated, so make sure to think all their block permutations through. I have both surprised people with Ballista lethals and watched opponents miss Ballista lethals against me many times. The math is weird and ungainly, and complicated immensely by the ability to spend four mana pumping Ballista but learning to do it quickly and accurately is hugely beneficial.
Because of Walking Ballista's huge burst potential when attacking, getting extra counters on it is closer to exponentially beneficial than additively. When you get Ballista up to 5/5 in a game that was at all normal, it starts being a must block threat every turn. This means you will get to eat creatures with your Ballista for free, without removing any counters at all. Counters past the third are often very, very threatening and should be highly valued.
When you get a Ballista to this point, your opponent will often start thinking about lining up many blockers against your attacking Ballista. Again, the math is weird. Essentially, every one of your opponent's creatures is worth the smaller of their power and toughness stats when fighting against your Ballista. If their power is greater than their toughness, you can simply remove counters on your Ballista equal to their toughness to kill that creature and remove it from combat, effectively taking damage from it equal to its toughness. It's really hard to successfully multi-block a huge Ballista.
Often, getting a huge Walking Ballista will end with you being able to use it to take out a huge threat that you would otherwise have to spend one of your few premium removal spells on. It's very hard to race a Lyra Dawnbringer, even with a large Walking Ballista. I find that the general play pattern when they cast a Lyra into your large Ballista is to get one more attack in, then immediately kill the Lyra. You'll have a small Ballista again, but you weren't winning that race.
Glorybringer's a much more awkward one. Yes, the card's raceable, and given Ballista's damage potential, it's a race you'll likely win. But let's consider the scenario where you have a 5/5 Walking Ballista. They play Glorybringer and you let them go to combat. They attack and exert, targeting your Walking Ballista. What do you do?
If you let the damage resolve, they can now point a Magma Spray or a Lightning Strike at your Walking Ballista and finish the job, and you won't be able to trade for the Glorybringer anymore because four damage is marked on your Ballista. You get one ping. You can sidestep this by killing Glorybringer in response to the exert, but then they don't have to use a burn spell and you may have traded your Ballista for Glorybringer for no reason.
The right play most of the time in even games will be to kill Glorybringer before letting it attack. They still get to use Magma Spray to finish off your Ballista, but you couldn't stop that combination anyway, and this way at least you get both of their cards out of the deal.
The last thing to keep in mind about late game Walking Ballistas is that they represent up to four burn spells in the deck, waiting to be drawn and finish the game. We're used to this dynamic against red decks, but many Walking Ballista decks are in colors that don't normally get to have burn spells. When playing against Walking Ballista decks, you can't go too hard on using your life total as a resource. If you let yourself fall to three, a Walking Ballista off the top on six mana will end you. Try and stay above four for sure, five if possible. You can, of course, go lower if doing so will enable you to end the game in short order.
This is also something to remember when playing a Walking Ballista deck. If you're starting to fall behind in a game but have one turn where you can throw away a bunch of resources to get them into Ballista range, you can set yourself up to have live draws to win the game. I've won many games by putting just enough pressure on my opponent to get them into range and then sitting back and playing a normal value-oriented game of midrange Magic until I draw one of the I-win Ballistas waiting in my deck.
Keeping Chandra and Teferi in Check (Karn too, kind of)
We've talked about using Walking Ballista to kill creatures and players, now it's time to discuss its role in fighting planeswalkers.
The math involved in using Walking Ballista to attack planeswalkers is covered in the previous section. You're a lot sadder about removing the last counter from your Ballista to kill a planeswalker than you are when it's to kill a player, but it's still worth doing. The numbers involved will generally be smaller, as planeswalkers tend to come down long before huge Ballistas are a possibility and that's a problem.
Walking Ballista is not very good at fighting high loyalty planeswalkers like Karn. If your opponent plays a Karn on turn 4 and pluses him to six loyalty, the only way Walking Ballista is going to be able to deal with that Karn within a single turn cycle is if you were on the play, cast Walking Ballista for X=2 on your turn 4 into an empty battlefield, and then spend your whole turn 5 spinning Ballista and trading it for Karn. That does not strike me as a good exchange, although it's one I would make every time in that spot. I just don't want to be in that spot.
Point being, you don't want Walking Ballista to be your A plan against planeswalkers. That's good, because we don't want to play our Walking Ballista early for no reason anyway. You know what Walking Ballista is good at? Finishing the planeswalker KO that the rest of your creature assault force started.
Imagine a game where on the draw, you play Heart of Kiran and Scrapheap Scrounger on turns 2 and 3. Your opponent plays a couple of creatures of their own and then slams a Karn on turn four. Heart of Kiran can only get through for four and they have ground blockers for your Scrounger, so even if you have a creature in hand that can crew Heart, you can't kill Karn. Unless, of course, you have Walking Ballista. You use Heart to attack Karn for four, cast Ballista for X=2, and finish the job. Look at how much better this exchange was than the previous one where Ballista killed Karn alone. We were on the draw here, we didn't have to sink two turns into trading away our Ballista, and we were able to kill Karn through blockers on the ground.
Of course, the sequence could be even better. If their planeswalker was a Chandra, Torch of Defiance rather than a Karn, you don't even have to lose your Walking Ballista to get the planeswalker off the battlefield. Ditto for Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, although the turns don't line up and we have to be very scared of the two mana they will have up.
Walking Ballista also does a very good job of keeping the minus abilities on both Chandra and Teferi in check. Using either of those minuses on the turn those planeswalkers enters the battlefield leaves them with just one loyalty counter, easy pickings for a Walking Ballista. Ballista is an excellent card against U/W Control, and you'll often see Teferi come down and target a moderate sized Ballista. First counter goes at Teferi, next few to face. You must leave one counter though, as putting your best card third from the top is worth way more than a single point of damage.
The takeaway from the planeswalker discussion is a reinforcement of earlier points: hold your Ballistas when possible. Walking Ballista is slow to grow and doesn't line up well with the loyalty numbers on up-ticking planeswalkers in the midgame. It's great at finishing off planeswalkers and punishing planeswalkers that dare to minus, two roles that it can do better from your hand than the battlefield.
Alright, maybe trying to get through everything you can possibly do with a Walking Ballista was a tad ambitious. I've covered the general stuff and the principles at work in most Ballista scenarios, and I'm all out of space. Let me know if you'd like a part two about Walking Ballistas role in common matchups, both how it differs based on the Ballista deck in question and what it's looking to accomplish against every deck.